Ok, I’ll cop to exaggerating a bit. But far less than reports of the death of labor unions. Suggestions that President Trump’s policies doom unions fail to apprehend the development of a contractual and, for lack of a better term, philosophical international regulatory regime that lays the foundation to broader union success.

Focusing only on the US, evidence of labor’s decline seems overwhelming:

  • Labor’s huge victory in securing “quickie elections” from the NLRB? A big bust. Union membership in 2016 declined. Missouri just dealt another blow to labor by becoming the 28th state to pass “Right to Work” legislation.
  • President Trump’s trade positions may seem friendly to organized labor, but Thomas Perez and David Weil are gone, along with the dream of massive top-down organizing of employers such as McDonalds. Can a repudiation be any more clear than the nomination of Andrew Puzder?
  • State action? Hardly. With the majority of states under Republican control, gains beyond organized labor’s existing strongholds (California and New York, by themselves account for two-thirds of union membership) will be marginal at best. And now, a Republican-controlled Congress has introduced a National Right to Work law.

Yet, undercurrents misunderstood or not observed have a way of changing the inevitable. If numbers alone can illustrate labor’s decline, how does one explain union power in France, where membership at 8% is lower than the 10.7% in the United States? Simple: union membership numbers is yesterday’s game, union power is tomorrow’s.

About the time Y2K doomsday scenarios were in vogue, unions began rallying around the theme “Solidarity without Borders.” Back then, the SEIU worked with global union federations to create Union Network International, now UNI Global Union (UNI). Few paid attention.

UNI proposed to use the aggressive campaign tactics of the US to expand and enforce the emerging “social dimension” of Europe. Lipstick on a pig to many: a grand sounding theme for what would amount to nothing more than the same letters and statements of support which historically passed for cross-border solidarity.

Fast forward to 2017, UNI has grown up and so too has its approach: “labor rights are Human Rights.” Now, middle class workers in the United States with a house and a boat are human rights victims. No less authority than Human Rights Watch gives the corporate targets of unions the same treatment formerly reserved to tin-pot dictators.

The United Nations Global Compact and its Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights elevate local organizing and bargaining disputes to rarified heights. The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises validates these views, and adds an enforcement mechanism. The International Labor Organization’s Conventions 87 and 98 have newfound meaning.

Unions now have the power to offset changes within the US by bringing pressure to bear outside the US. Whether it’s the “soft law” of the UN Guiding Principles’ obligation to audit and resolve potential human rights impacts or “hard law” such as the United Kingdom’s Modern Slavery Act and EU Directive 2014/95 on nonfinancial reporting, the game has changed.

Let me pinpoint when and how it changed. The IUF/Colsiba-Chiquita Framework Agreement in 2001 was the first watershed moment; its supply chain provisions a harbinger of things to come. No longer would unions be satisfied with the undefined aspirational statements. Unions demanded concrete commitments.

The second is in progress. Union pension funds control $5.2 trillion according to the AFL-CIO’s Investment Trust Corporation. Global coordination is leading to a much more effective use of these funds in labor’s “Capital Strategies.” The dream of “Pension Fund Socialism” from the 1970’s will find full expression in tomorrow’s global union campaigns.

Other strands (beyond the scope of a blog post) are converging to create an international impact that is less and less affected by shifts in national law like those being forecast for the Trump administration. Audi’s 2017 Super Bowl ad on income inequality is a reflection of the influence of that international trend and proof of its post-Trump potency.

Equal pay is a favorite wedge issue for global unions. While Trump will likely be reversing the EEOC’s proposal for disclosures of wage equality in annual EEO-1 statements, businesses with global operations being pushed in the opposite direction. That is the hidden significance of Trumpism: its incentive to unions to accelerate the transition to globalism.